There are fewer things that can be more detestable (as ideas that provide programmes of action) than nationalism and patriotism, especially when they are paired with fascism or totalitarian movements and governments.
While observers and commentators rightfully point to organic fascists of the 1920s, there are post-war fascists (like Generalissimo Franco in Spain) and early 21st century fascists like Narendra Modi, “dirty fascists” like Donald Trump or Viktor Orban and Julius Malema, all of whom, along with the likes of the “wildly popular fascist”, Rodrigo Duterte, continue to reflect the echoes of fascism.
Nationalism, patriotism and fascism (and populism for that matter) are not umbilically linked, but they share and embrace with xenophobia and searches for purity and exceptionalism. As Benito Mussolini, the arch-organic fascist told his mistress, Claretta Petacci (as recorded in her diaries and a book, Secret Mussolini): “We must give Italians a sense of race”.
With Italian exceptionalism, anti-semitism and a hatred of international (foreign) liberals, Mussolini was fascism’s earliest expression of the relationship with nationalism, patriotism, the search for purity of the Italian race — and xenophobia. To Mussolini “real Italians” were “innocent victims”. It is worth, then, bearing in mind, this relationship as we watch Malema and his red shirts on the march in search of foreign workers.
We cannot dismiss Malema’s politics of affect and his creation of a veritable outrage industry (as an observer of global historical trends I would situate this in Pankaj Mishra’s rise of anger around the world) as part of a rise of a society of the spectacle, we can turn first to the dangers of nationalism, patriotism and exceptionalism qua purity of race, ethnicity or tribe.
Nationalism, patriotism and blind loyalty
There are important textbook differences between nationalism and patriotism, but there is an argument to be made that they are the two sides of the same coin. Patriotism generally refers to unflinching love and support of one’s own country — you will die for your country.
Nationalism can be complex and quite often intersects with patriotism. Nationalism denotes a complete devotion and loyalty to one’s own country, its national interests and political independence — with a willingness not to oppose other countries. Nationalism also assumes that there is something, markers (ethnic, religious or racial) that set one country apart from another. As a general postulate, nationalists will kill “others” for their own country.
Whereas both are often communal or group tendencies that sweep up masses of people, there are also individual or private and personal tendencies that are similar. Both the public and the personal tendencies most often make people or groups blind to the misdeeds of “their own”, and inspire a selected morality when it comes to conflict or even violating the most basic laws and mores of society.
It’s a bit like the old saying about Manchester United’s Roy Keane: “He’s a mean bastard, but he’s our bastard”.
The furore around Novak Djokovic is a reminder of this tendency to remain loyal to someone; to one’s own “people” and point (only) to the good deeds they have done in their past. I have close relations with some folk who are from Novi Sad and other places in the former Yugoslavia. Almost without fail, everyone I have interacted with (within Serbia and in the diaspora) imagined that all the good work that Djokovic had done in communities everywhere was “the real Djokovic” and the Australian visa/vaccination furore was simply a misrepresentation by “the media”. Djokovic was presented as an inherently good and flawless person who could not do anything wrong… from what I know, Djokovic is simply a nationalist.
Nonetheless, the furore around one of the world’s great tennis players reminds me of the mother of a man who (during the mid-1980s) brutally butchered a farmworker somewhere in the western parts of the old Transvaal — it was either in Potchefstroom or Krugersdorp — and who swore that her son was an angel. He would not hurt a fly, she told the magistrate (or judge), and there was no way that he could have used a dagger to gut the farmworker like a fish and drag him around the farm behind his bakkie.
When I covered the event as a young photojournalist, the evidence and witnesses told the story of an especially cruel young man. (In a reversal of roles, as it were, a white farmer was dragged to his death behind a bakkie by black workers in 2011. The murderers were sentenced to life imprisonment, as reported in Volksblad on 14 March 2013).
The point that is missed is that anyone who breaks a country’s laws, whether or not you agree with them, can and probably will be prosecuted. Since the 1960s, very many activists in South Africa were prosecuted quite legally — though the laws were profoundly unjust in moral and political terms. So, if you are a benevolent soul that hands out food and care to the poor, it does not give you a free pass when you violate the law.
Party before the state, people and especially ‘outsiders’
South Africa, like the former Soviet Union and North Korea, is increasingly becoming a country where loyalty to the party and its objectives are more important than the people and the state. This has been recorded in the press and elsewhere over and again. There is nothing to gain from raking over those coals.
While we can point to the storm of xenophobia that is crossing Europe (which has parallels with Spain’s fascist leader, Generalissimo Franco) the standout feature of early 21st century movements is reveries of racial regeneration, and in South Africa’s case, deeper divisions are drawn between Africans and non-Africans, and now, between local and “foreign” workers by the EFF.
This, in turn, echoes Stephen Miller, one of former US President Trump’s longest-serving senior advisers who dedicated himself, to the point of obsession, to stopping immigrants. It should come as no surprise to some that another former US president, Richard Nixon, said of the Spanish fascist leader: “General Franco was a loyal friend and ally of the United States. He earned worldwide respect for Spain through firmness and fairness.”
What seems clear is that there is a comfortable relationship between fascist populism, totalitarianism, a mangle of nationalism and patriotism, and xenophobia. Much can be read, also, into the EFF’s apparent volte-face, to “allow” Zimbabweans (presumably Africans north of Zimbabwe) to work in SA. This has echoes of the tensions between Adolf Hitler and Mussolini where both were seriously xenophobic, and drew distinctions between (German) “Nordic” and (Italian) “Mediterranean” races.
In this sense, the EFF sees Zimbabweans as kith and kin. Zimbabweans can work in South Africa, Malema is reported to have said. Mussolini also established a kind of register of “foreign workers” although it was aimed at workers from the south and north of Italy, but caught non-Italians in its web.
If we pull all of these strands together, we see quite distinct homologies with the rise of fascism, populism, totalitarianism, xenophobia and insider-outsider politics in the world. Whereas the Italians or Hungarians focus on migrants from Western Asia, and Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has Muslims in its cross-hairs, the EFF has non-Africans and employers of foreigners under the microscope.
In the meantime, we will continue to defend “our own” and continue to draw lines between insiders and outsiders through nationalism, patriotism and the abuse of identity politics. DM